On December 9, 1869, In Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, trade unionist and tailor Uriah H. Stephens met with eight
fellow trade unionists and formed "The Noble and Holy Order of the
Knights of Labor," or K. of L. Brother Stephens was a Freemason, an
Odd Fellow and a Knight of Pythias, and incorporated much from Masonry and
Pythianism into the ritual of the K. of L. In fact, the structure and ritual
of the K. of L. was based on the Masonic lodge system.
Organized in "Local Assemblies" presided by a "Master
Workman," the K. of L. was dedicated to the principles of "Secrecy,
Obedience and Mutual Assistance." The Knights were reminded of their
Order's principles by the K. of L. emblem, a triangle within a circle, bearing
the letters "S.O.M.A.," and "K. of L."
The K. of L. used secret rituals in the "Sanctuary" of the
Local Assembly to initiate new members, and taught chivalric principles of the
Gilded Age, with exhortations to glorify God, "The Universal Father of
All," to be honest, sober, to mutually assist all Brother
Knights, to keep the Order's secrets inviolate from outsiders, and to help the
working man and champion the cause of labor. The new candidates were taught a
series of signs for recognition, distress, and assistance, passwords, and
grips by the "Venerable Sage," and were administered several
oaths before "The Supreme Master of the Universe," by the
Local Assembly "Master Workman" in the presence of the Holy
Bible on a triangular altar.
The Order took its secrecy very seriously, and used an outer guard and a
" Worthy Inspector," similar to a Tiler, to test all visitors
to a meeting of the Local Assembly, testing them by sign, password and grip
before being allowed to enter the "Inner Veil" of the
The ritual and secret work of the K. of L. was written down in code, and
published in a manual called the "Adelphon Kruptos" (Greek
for "Secret Brotherhood") or simply the "AK." A
second degree, called the "Philosopher's Stone Degree," was
added in 1878, but was rarely used and was discontinued in 1882.
Under the leadership of its second Grand Master Workman, Brother Terence V.
Powderly, a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), the ritual and
secrecy aspect of the Order was dropped on January 1, 1882 when it became a
public organization. Brother Powderly had remembered the trouble and
controversy that the AOH had undergone when several AOH members in the
coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania had been accused of violence in labor
management disputes. The AOH passwords and signs had been used by a secret and
violent group called the "Molly Maguires," to conceal their
membership and protect each other. The Molly Maguires were accused of
operating within the local AOH Divisions in the coal-mining counties, which
led to the Roman Catholic Church condemning both the AOH and the Molly
Maguires as secret societies.
To avoid further controversy with the Catholic Church (since many of the
Knights were Catholics), which disliked secret oath-bound societies, and to
help expand the Order and spread the word about its existence, Brother
Powderly pushed for a public all-inclusive labor organization, and dropped the
secret ceremonial aspect of the Order. The K. of L. began to admit both men
and women into its Local Assemblies, and allowed Blacks to join as well, a
first for any labor organization.
Despite Brother Powderly's efforts, several Local Assemblies maintained the
secrecy of the old K. of L. and continued initiating its new members with the Adelphon
Kruptos ritual. Brother Powderly later left the Catholic Church, joined
the Craft, and was Entered, Passed and Raised in the Blue Lodge. He joined the
Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (Northern Jurisdiction) and attained the
By 1917, the K. of L. disbanded officially. It was overtaken by the more
modern American Federation of Labor, which later joined with the Congress of
Industrial organizations to become the AFL-CIO. However, the K. of L. has left
its mark on America to this day, with the inception of Labor Day with a
K. of L. parade in New York City on September 5, 1882. The parade was the
brainchild of Knight Peter J. Maguire of Brooklyn Local Assembly No. 1562, and
founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. To this day, the
first Monday in September is celebrated in the U.S.A. as Labor Day, a last
victory for America's working people from the K. of L.
The following link leads to a
nice history of the order.
A special "Thanks" to Brother Denis P. McGowan who provided the history of
this Order. Brother
Denis P. McGowan is a dedicated fraternalist and student of the history of
American fraternal organizations.